Judge Brett Cullum finds out that in addition to Spaghetti Westerns, there were Prune Westerns, too!
"He used to be one of the top gun fighters."
Johnny Reno is a movie that knows it's a "Johnny come lately" entry in the Western genre. It's full of aging stars swaggering through your stereotypical story about a town on the frontier thrown into turmoil by the arrival of a U.S. Marshal and his prisoner, who is an alleged "Indian killer." All the good folks of Stone Junction want to give the man over to the Indians to kill, or string him up themselves and deliver his corpse. Only one man can stop the madness of mob rule—and his name is Reno. It's a movie that goes down easy and does nothing revolutionary. Gun fights, horse riding, an old-fashioned lynching, and some misunderstood savage Indians all make appearances just when you expect them. It's such a lazy flick that during the big saloon brawl a pair of painfully obvious stunt doubles duke it out in place of the actors, and the camera doesn't bother to move back far enough to mask it. Johnny Reno was probably a feature best enjoyed as the second installment in a double bill at a drive-in, when audiences would be woozy enough after two hours in a car to not mind a little lackadaisical stroll through a Western. It's certainly not perfect, but I wouldn't say it lacks charm.
Dana Andrews (Laura) plays U.S. Marshal Johnny Reno. Andrews was well past his leading man prime by the time this movie rolled around, and he doesn't seem to mind just gritting his teeth and downing shots of whiskey between dry line readings. Jane Russell was forty-five, and only three pictures away from retiring, when she accepted the role of saloon madame Nona Williams. It's a fine, tough performance, but there's little for her to do other than scowl at people who try to catch glimpses of her in the bathtub (but for her age nobody would seem to mind). Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman) shows up as a sheriff; his real-life drinking problems certainly helped him achieve his grizzled, bloodshot look. Half the fun of Johnny Reno is trying to guess which washed-up actor is going to pop up next, looking like they're digging for a paycheck in the town's dirty streets. What's so funny is how this bunch of geriatric thespians make the film seem a little more realistic in some ways.
The film was an A.C. Lyles production, a name which became synonymous with old actors in Westerns made for old audiences who grew up on them back in the '30s and '40s. They were classic and trite approaches to the genre, that would prove to be the last gasps of the frontier in cinema until the Italians stepped in with Clint Eastwood and a killer soundtrack. Johnny Reno is certainly a good ways from classic, but it does offer the best of this batch of films. If you're a fan of classic Westerns, it's certainly worth a look to see a traditional approach taken with some veteran actors of the genre. And there is a '60s sensibility to the film as well, in that it deals with racism and vigilantes in its themes. It's all about things not being what they appear to be, and that makes it a little more interesting when viewed from a historical perspective.
The transfer preserves both the correct aspect ratio as well as the bright colors of the '60s. It all looks solid, without many distractions from dirt, grain, or artifacts. The monaural sound mix delivers both the haunting Elvis-inspired theme song (sung by Jerry Wallace) and the gun fights well enough. But nobody thought to provide any extras; and without even so much as a trailer, Johnny Reno appears stripped to the bone, with only some chapter stops to keep you occupied after the feature. It seems the producers of the DVD for Paramount felt so lazy after the picture show that they gave up and took naps. Just as well, I reckon. Johnny Reno was a no-frills guy anyway. Just a reformed gunfighter turned arm of the law who's here to fight for justice well into his fifties. Here's one for all you people who like your leading men and your Westerns like your prunes—old and wrinkled.
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